Climate change is coming to Michigan. How are experts preparing our state?

In June this year, flooding devastated two counties in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It was so bad, three people died and Gov. Rick Snyder declared the area a state of disaster.

Like the flooding that metro Detroit experienced the summer of 2014, these are the type of events we are likely to see more of as the climate changes. Although no single event can be attributed to climate change, it makes the probability of these events higher, creating larger, more frequent storms, longer dry-spells, hotter summers, and other problems. 

The immediacy of this situation is one reason why Ben van der Pluijm, professor of Geology and the Environment at the University of Michigan, has stopped talking about sustainability and begun focusing on resilience. "Short term thinking is not a mistake," van der Pluijm says. "No, these things are happening in the next five years and that is really changing people's thinking."

While there's a long way to go, Michigan is working to become a more resilient state. Potential solutions currently being explored include installing rain gardens and porous surfaces to sequester stormwater, planting trees and constructing more white surfaces to reduce the heat island effect, and building sustainable energy sources into our power supply to reduce stress on the electrical grid.

Below are some, but certainly not all, of the strategies Michigan professionals are exploring to face the myriad issues that will arise from climate change.

Stormwater management

The Michigan Science Center and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History will bring some high-profile examples of these strategies to the city's Cultural Center this fall in an effort to "make the invisible visible" as Leslie Tom, chief sustainability officer at the Wright Museum, puts it.

The two neighboring museums will be joining forces to conserve water by using porous pavers, bioswales, and other green infrastructure, which are designed to store stormwater in the ground and in plant biomass. This keeps water out of sewers and reduces the pressure on Detroit's combined sewer system, something that can become overloaded during storms, discharging sewage into the Detroit river and causing flooding.

Stormwater management will be an especially important part of responding to climate change in Michigan. According to the 2017 National Climate Assessment — an interagency government study performed by NASA, NOAA, The Department of Defense and others — "The 10 rainiest days (in the Midwest) can contribute as much as 40 percent of total precipitation in a given year." Precipitation is up by as much as 20 percent over the last century and much of the increase occurs during the heaviest rainfalls. The report predicts that this trend is likely to continue. 

"Our hope is to be able to tell the story of water," says Samantha Fernandez Keys, senior manager of business development at the Michigan Science Center. 

Leslie Tom and Samantha Fernandez Keys
By providing concrete examples of adapting to climate change, the museums are showing how individuals can make a difference in their communities. Storm-water management provides an especially good example of the power of individual action. Unlike other pieces of climate change response that depend more on systemic change, like improving public transit, rain falls where it falls and proper management requires a widespread response by both individuals and institutions. 

"Everybody can be water stewards," Keys says. "And anybody can have an impact through observation and action."

Both Tom and Keys point out that the vision for the campus of the two museums is still evolving, and they're hosting a number of community events to support this process. "The community will give us the right direction and answers to be able to address these important topics," Tom says. 

Heat islands

According to a study by the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative (DCAC), average temperatures in Detroit are set to increase between 1.5 and 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. Exacerbating this increase is a phenomenon known as the urban heat island (UHI), an effect caused from man-made changes to the landscape — like buildings, asphalt, or the removal of vegetation — that absorb and re-admit solar radiation or interrupt natural cooling mechanisms like evapotranspiration. The result is an area that's significantly hotter than its surroundings. 

Luckily, some of the strategies that groups like Friends of the Rouge, The Erb Family Foundation, and Detroit Future City are using for sequestering stormwater will also be useful for reducing the heat island effect. This is especially true of porous paving materials that allow water to infiltrate the ground. In addition to letting water in, porous surfaces also allow water to evaporate from the soil, increasing total evaporation and plant transpiration in the environment. As Larissa Larsen, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, says, "It constitutes a big part of cooling."

Tree planting in cities is crucial for both evapotranspiration and because trees shade otherwise impervious surfaces. "Imperviousness is really your enemy," says Larson. "And your best friend is the tree."

Currently the Detroit General Services Department has a program called the "10,000 UP Tree Initiative" to plant 10,000 trees. While it's a good start, Larsen says that in the wake of tree pests like Dutch elm disease and emerald ash borer, it might not be enough to offset previous losses.

Trees planted for the 10,000 UP Initiative
Other strategies for mitigating UHI include installing green and white roofs. Green roofs get a lot of attention for their capacity to transform the look of cities and sequester rain water. But in a city like Detroit, simply painting roofs white might be the best option. 

"[Green roofs] are not a good use of money," Larson says. "Painting them white achieves the same goal and there's so much other space for putting in green infrastructure.”

Detroit will also need to have a plan for excessively hot periods to protect its most vulnerable residents, which includes the very old, very young, and those who suffer from chronic illnesses. As the National Climate Assessment notes, mortality increases by 4 percent during heat waves. 

Cooling centers would thus become incredibly important. These air-conditioned public spaces help those who are homeless or lack air conditioning — potentially from power loss due to an extreme heat event itself — and can be situated at public facilities such as libraries or police stations. The DCAC report found that more cooling centers were needed and encouraged the creation of mobile cooling centers to help Detroit's dispersed population.

The grid

Just as heat has the potential to disproportionately impact urban and especially low-income urban areas, problems with Michigan's electrical grid could put these same communities at risk, exacerbating the problems caused by heat events if air conditioning use during increasingly hot summers overloads the power grid. The increased frequency of storms could also produce more outages as trees take out power lines. 

Diane van Buren, a community solar activist and president of the economic development firm Zachary and Associates, noticed that during the massive power outages of March 2017, low-income neighborhoods in Detroit were some of the last to regain power. 

"They have targeted the neighborhoods that are most impacted based on population," she says. "That makes sense, but the other category should have been income level … It's a totally different vulnerability when you're in a low-income neighborhood." 

People in these neighborhoods, she reasons, will likely have the hardest time getting to a temperate place when their power goes out, let alone restocking the contents of their refrigerators.

One strategy that van Buren is looking at to create more resilience in Detroit neighborhoods is community solar, where governments, citizens, or private investors build solar arrays and battery storage that could power homes and businesses when the larger network fails. She is currently working with the Detroit City Council as part of the Renewable Energy Sub-Committee of the Green Task Force to explore options for implementing solar as part of the currently dormant Public Lighting Department. These micro-grids would potentially be able to "island" during larger system failures, continuing to power homes and businesses even if the grid fails.

Charlotte Jameson from the Michigan Environmental Council, an environmental watchdog group, says that it's important to look into more distributed forms of energy, whether it's from solar or other sources. One of solar powers' advantages is that it generally produces the most energy when it's most needed on the hottest days of the year. Distributed power also reduces some of the inefficiencies created from "line loss" or the amount of power that's dissipated when it travels across large distances.

All of these issues with the grid are compounded by the age of the system itself. "It's ancient," says Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "The grid right now has transfer stations put in during the era of Edison." 

However these energy issues play out in the short term, people like Hoffman believe that big changes are coming. "Whether its micro-grids, whether it's small-scale solar, small-scale nuclear, we have no idea," he says. "But I guarantee you that the way we power our infrastructure in 50 years will look fundamentally different in ways we can't even imagine."

The article is part of a series, supported by the Michigan Science Center, exploring key regional issues in science over the next five years. Read more articles from this series and others from our collaboration with the Michigan Science Center here

Photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.